Ford guarded national interest

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The following editorial appeared in Detroit Free Press on Dec. 27, 2006.

Gerald R. Ford earned a revered place in American history by making the ultimate political sacrifice.

Knowing full well that it could cost him the White House in the next election, Ford nonetheless put the national interest ahead of his own in 1974 and pardoned former president Richard Nixon for any and all offenses arising from the Watergate scandal. It was that very scandal through which Ford had become president just a month earlier, on Aug. 9, 1974. He would be dogged throughout his brief administration by a public belief that he had cut a deal with Nixon – the presidency for a pardon.

But anyone who knew or had ever worked with Jerry Ford through his 25 years as a congressman from Grand Rapids, Mich., also knew that was simply not his way. Ford, who died Tuesday at age 93, was above all an honest man, astute in politics to be sure, but fundamentally honorable. He truly believed what he repeatedly said in explaining the Nixon pardon – the nation had to get beyond Watergate to address an array of serious pressing issues.

A majority of the nation’s voters either disagreed with Ford or chose not to believe him or were just fed up with Washington politics and a stagnant economy, for he did lose the presidency in 1976 to a D.C. outsider, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. But in time, history would vindicate Ford’s bold decision.

One of Republican Ford’s chief critics at the time, liberal Democratic icon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, even made amends in 2001 when he was on hand to help present the former president with a Profile in Courage award.

“President Ford was right,” Kennedy declared. “His courage made it possible for us to begin healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.”

“I think he saved the country,” said Henry Kissinger, secretary of state to both Nixon and Ford. “I felt that he had saved it in such a matter-of-fact way that I don’t think he was given credit for it.”

In accepting the Kennedy honor, Ford set himself apart from so many of today’s politicians, saying “courage is not something to be gauged in a poll or located in a focus group. No adviser can spin it. No historian can backdate it. For, in the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity’s approval.”

With that kind of thinking and his innate civility, Ford would be largely out of place in today’s Washington, among the vanishing ranks of moderates who subscribe to the Bismarck maxim that “politics is the art of the possible” – as opposed to take-no-prisoners combat.

“If there is distrust out there – and there is,” Ford said at age 88, “perhaps it is because there is so much partisan jockeying for advantage at the expense of public policy. At times it feels as if American politics consists largely of candidates without ideas hiring consultants without convictions to stage campaigns without content. Increasingly the result is elections without voters.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. Wherever I go these days, I sense a longing for community, and a desire on the part of Americans to be part of something bigger and finer than themselves.”

That’s what brought Ford to Washington after his eye-opening service in the Navy during World War II. He rejected the isolationist sentiments that pervaded the nation following the grueling war, believing correctly that America had new and permanent responsibilities in the world.

He wanted America’s government to set the standard for the world, too.

“Truth is the glue that holds governments together. Compromise is the oil that makes governments go.”

That’s what Ford told his former colleagues in Congress in 1973 when Nixon nominated him to be vice president. At the time, Ford was a 25-year congressman and the respected House minority leader. He aspired only to be speaker, should Republicans ever take control of the chamber.

But history intervened. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after being caught in a bribery scandal, and Ford was Nixon’s choice to replace him. At the time, the Watergate scandal was deepening and Ford’s confirmation as vice president came with the full awareness that he could become an unelected president in the event of a Nixon impeachment or resignation.

Given the tenor of the times, he was a perfect choice – a straightforward, plainspoken man with bedrock American values who had, yes, been in Washington a long time but was never consumed by it. He simply said what he thought and did what he believed in. The only president from Michigan will forever be a credit to the values of his adopted homestate.

While his brief presidency will always be marked by the pardon, Ford’s administration was history-making in many other ways. Furthering the cause of national healing, Ford extended a limited amnesty to Vietnam-era draft evaders. As the economy dropped and national unemployment topped 7 percent, Ford proposed a tax surcharge on corporate profits. He launched an ill-fated WIN program to “whip inflation now” and signed into law the federal guarantees for the nation’s pension programs.

Ford presided over the final American withdrawal from Vietnam and, while the federal Freedom of Information Act was enacted over his veto, he also established a commission that exposed domestic spying by the CIA. Ford authorized the daring and bloody rescue of the crew of the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez after it was seized in Cambodian waters and signed a bill enabling women to seek appointments to the U.S. service academies. On Ford’s watch, the United States celebrated its bicentennial, signed a nuclear testing treaty with the Soviet Union and undertook a joint space venture with the Soviets as well.

In a time of lingering social turmoil from the turbulent ’60s, Ford also survived two assassination attempts Actually, the events of his 2 1/2-year presidency would have been enough for any two-term president.

Yet some years after he left the White House, when one of his successors was in yet another crisis, Ford was asked if he had really liked the job he never wanted – the most important, and burdensome, job on Earth.

“Oh I loved that job,” he said. “It was something different every day.”

Were it not for Ford becoming president, the nation might not have discovered the national treasure that is his wife, Betty. Her openness and honesty about coping with illness and personal problems opened a door for millions of people, especially women, who had been suffering in silence.

Betty Ford, also was a champion of the Equal Rights Amendment and instrumental in her husband’s tireless pushing for equal opportunities for women.

Gerald Ford had a few head-bumping, stumbling incidents that were captured by cameras during his presidency, and recent generations may know him best from the pratfalling parodies of Chevy Chase on reruns of “Saturday Night Live” from the 1970s. In truth, Ford was one of the most athletic presidents ever and, had he not opted for Yale Law School, could have played in the young National Football League after lettering as an offensive lineman for the University of Michigan.

America’s 38th president was born Leslie King Jr. in 1913 in Omaha, Neb. His mother escaped an abusive marriage and resettled with her son in Grand Rapids, where Ford was adopted and renamed by her new husband. Ford would forever credit his mother with having the courage to change her life – and his in the process. The Ford family grew up in Grand Rapids with a simple set of rules: “Work hard, tell the truth, and come to dinner on time.”

Ford biographer James Cannon wrote that the boy Gerald Ford was known for outbursts of a temper that he likely inherited from his natural father. At such times, Cannon said, his mother would force him to recite the Rudyard Kipling poem, “If” until the storm passed.

“If you can keep your head when all about you

“Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

“But make allowance for their doubting, too …

“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

“Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,

“If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

“If all men count with you, but none too much

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute

“With 60 seconds worth of distance run

“Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it

“And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son.”

It is not know how many times Ford had to recite “If.” But he clearly knew it well, for he lived it every day.

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